The novelist discusses his latest work
In his third novel, A True History of the Captivation, Transport to Strange Lands & Deliverance of Hannah Guttentag (Dzanc Books), Josh Russell puts a wry twist on a genre known as “captivity narrative”—typically a story of someone captured by rather uncivilized enemies. His protagonist Hannah Guttentag’s whip-smart and sexy tale, set in early 1990s academia, is instead about being captivated by such savages as librarians, grad students, and professors. Guttentag visits the strange lands of Nashville, Ithaca, and New Orleans—and her studies include Puritan-era women’s narratives. Russell, forty-three, is a remarkably gifted and unpredictable novelist. He grew up in Normal, Illinois, and graduated from the University of Maryland before getting an MFA at Louisiana State University. He worked as a 7-Eleven clerk, a skateboard salesman, an oyster shucker, and an editorial assistant to NPR commentator and poet Andrei Codrescu before landing at Georgia State University, where he is an associate professor of English and codirector of the respected Creative Writing Program.
“Teaching has allowed me to focus on writing for more than a decade, and that’s been a blessing,” says Russell. “My students are always excited and exciting, and I’m fortunate to spend my time with exciting and excited young artists. Honestly, I can’t think of a better job for a writer.”
When and where I write when I can find time and where I can find a quiet spot. Right now the dining room table is my favorite. When I write, I write three pages. If that takes an hour, so be it. If it takes ten minutes, I can go swimming. You’d be surprised how fast those three-page pieces add up.
Fiction vs. nonfiction I knew I wanted to concentrate on being a writer of fiction when I took my first creative writing class at Maryland. Before that, I thought I wanted to be a journalist, but quickly I realized I liked making things up too much to be a journalist. This was back before Fox News.
Literary heroes I’m uneasy with calling people whose books I like “heroes.” Martin Luther King Jr. is a hero. I am a serious fan of the work of Leonard Michaels, Borges, and Nabokov.
Recent literary loves Anne Carson’s Nox, Sarah Goldstein’s Fables, Mary Robison’s Why Did I Ever, and Michael Griffith’s Trophy: A Novel.
Metro Atlanta as a literary hot spot The community is supportive and active to a degree I haven’t seen elsewhere, even in New Orleans, which has a reputation as a literary town. Decatur is wonderful. Last year my kid sat next to Thomas Mullen’s kid in kindergarten. I like to imagine them talking about their dads: “Novelist.” “Mine, too.” “I wish he was a fireman or a lawyer—something more interesting than a boring old novelist.”
The best writing advice he ever got Write the fiction you want to read.
The worst advice Write the fiction you imagine the largest number of people wants to read.
Photograph by Kathryn Russell